Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) (December 7, 1598, Naples – November 28, 1680, Rome) was a towering baroque artist in 17th century Baroque Rome, where he is known mainly for his often overlapping skills as a sculptor and architect. He was also a painter, draftsman, designer of stage sets, fireworks displays, and funeral trappings.

Early Works

Bernini was born in Naples to a Florentine family and accompanied his father Pietro Bernini, a capable Mannerist sculptor himself, to Rome. Here the young prodigy’s capabilities were soon noticed by the great painter Annibale Carracci and by the Pope Paul V himself, and Bernini could therefore begin work as an independent artist. His first works were inspired by Hellenistic sculpture of ancient Greece and imperial Rome he could study in the new seat.

Among these early works are The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Zeus and a Faun (redated 1609, considered by some authorities a forgery of an antique work) and several allegorical busts such as the Damned Soul and Blessed Soul (c. 1619, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome). In the 1620 he completed the bust of Pope Paul V. Under the patronage of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a member of the reigning papal family, young Bernini rapidly rose to prominence as a sculptor. Scipione’s villa chronicles his secular sculptures, with a series of masterpieces:

  • Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius depicting three ages of man from various viewpoints (1619), borrowing from a figure in a Raphael fresco, and perhaps an allegory reflecting the moment when son attains the skill of his father.
  • Abduction of Proserpine (1621-22), where the young artist creates a monument recalling Giambologna’s mannerist Rape of the Sabine Women, and masterfully dimpling the woman’s marble skin.
  • Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) shows the most dramatic moment in one of Ovid’s Metamorphosis tale. In the story, Apollo, the god of light, scolds Eros, the god of love, for playing with adult weapons. Eros is angered and wounds Apollo with a golden arrow induces Apollo, upon sight of Daphne- a water nymph who had declared her perpetual virginity, to fall in love. Eros also wounded Daphne with a lead arrow that induces her to reject Apollo’s advances. Apollo pursues Daphne. Just when he captures her she cries out to her father, the river god, to destroy her beauty in order to quell Apollo’s advances. Her father responds by mutating her into a laurel tree.If representative sculpture of human figures metamophoses a person into a depiction in lifeless stone, this statue doubles the conceit, depicting in stone a life changing to inanimate tree.
  • Finally, Bernini’s David (1623-1624) is a revolutionary statement. The man coils in his original plinth (see illustration below left). Bernini’s David (illustration, left) is poised to release his rock, in contrast to poses of the Florentine Davids of prior generations, such as the triumphant repose of the famous Michelangelo‘s David or the haughty effeteness of Donatello‘s or Verrocchio’s Davids. The twisted torso, furrowed forehead, and granite grimace of Bernini’s “David” is symptomatic of the baroque’s interest in dynamic movement and emotion over High Renaissance stasis and classic severity. Michelangelo expresses David’s heroic nature; Bernini captures the heroic moment.

His first architectural project was the magnificent bronze baldachin (1624-1633), the canopy over the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the façade for the church of Santa Bibiana (1624-1626), Rome. In 1629, before the Baldacchino was complete, Urban VIII put him in charge of all the ongoing architectural works at St Peter’s. He was given the commission for the Basilica’s tombs of the Barberini Pope and, years later, Pope Alexander VII Chigi 1671-1678. The Chair of Saint Peter (Cathedra Petri) 1657-1666), in the apse of St. Peter’s, is one of his masterpieces.

Bernini’s sculptural output was immense and varied. Among his other best-known sculptures: the Ecstasy of St Theresa (1645-1652, in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome) and the now-hidden Constantine, at the base of the Scala Regia (which he designed). He helped design the Ponte Sant’Angelo, sculpting two of the angels of his own, while the others were made by his pupils on the base of his designs.

At the end of April 1665, at the height of his fame and powers, he traveled to Paris, remaining there until November. Bernini’s popularity even abroad is showed by the fact he could hardly walk in a street of Paris without being lined by crowds of people pointing at him.

This trip, encouraged by Father Oliva, general of the Jesuits, was a reply to the repeated requests for his works by the king Louis XIV. Here Bernini presented some (ultimately rejected) designs for the east front of the Louvre; his adventurous concave-convex facades was discarded in favor of the more stern and classic proposals of native Claude Perrault. Bernini, however, soon became unpopular in the French court, for he praised the art and architecture of Italy at the expense of that of France: he said, for example, that a painting by Guido Reni was worth more than all of Paris. The sole work remaining from his work to Paris was a bust of Louis XIV: anyway, it set the standard for the royal prortraits for a century.

Bernini’s Architecture

Bernini’s architectural conceits include the piazza and colonnades of St Peter’s he planned several famous Roman palaces: Palazzo Barberini (from 1630 on which he worked with Borromini); Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, 1650); and Palazzo Chigi (1664).

Bernini did not build from scratch many churches, preferring to concentrate himself on the embellishment of pre-existing structures. He fulfilled three commissions in the field; his stature allowed him the freedom to design the structure and decorate the interiors in a coherent designs. Best known is the the small oval baroque church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (1658-1671) which includes the statue of St. Andrew the Apostle soaring high above the aedicule framing the high altar. In Castelgandolfo (San Tommaso da Villanova, 1658-1661) and Ariccia (Santa Maria dell’Assunzione, 1662-1664), towns under papal control, Bernini also designed churches.

Bernini’s Fountains in Rome

True to the decorative dynamism of baroque, Roman fountains, part public works and part Papal monuments, were among his most gifted creations. Bernini’s fountains was the Fountain of the Triton (1640). The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1648-1651) in the Piazza Navona is a masterpiece of spectacle and political allegory. One anecdote tells that one of the Bernini’s river gods shields his gaze, horrified by the adjacent facade of Sant’Agnese in Agone church designed by his equally talented, but less politically successful, rival Francesco Borromini. However, the fountain was built several years before the façade of the church had been completed.

Bernini’s Marble Portraiture

Bernini also revolutionized marble busts, lending glamorous dynamism to once stony stillness of portraiture. Starting with the immediate pose, leaning out of the frame, of Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya (1621) at Santa Maria di Monserrato, Rome. The once-gregarious Cardinal Scipione Borghese is frozen in conversation (1632, Galleria Borghese). The portrait of his alleged mistress, Costanza Buonarelli (1635), does not portray divinity or royalty; but a woman in a moment of disheveled privacy, captured in conversation or surprise.

In his sculpted portraiture for more regal patrons, Bernini fashioned the marvelous windswept marble vestments and cascades of hair of Louis XIV’s portrait (1665, Palace of Versailles) would suffice to elevate any face to royalty. Similar exuberance glorifies the bust of Francesco I d’Este (Modena, Galleria Estense, 1650-1651).

Bernini’s Other works

Another of Bernini’s sculptures is known affectionately as Bernini’s Chick by the Roman people. It is located in the Piazza della Minerva, right in front of the church Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pope Alexander VII decided that he wanted an ancient Egyptian obelisk to be erected in the piazza and commissioned Bernini to create a sculpture to support the obelisk. The sculpture of an elephant was finally carried out in 1667 by one of Bernini’s students, Ercole Ferrata. One of the most interesting features of this elephant is its smile. To find out why it is smiling, one must head around to the rear end of the animal and one notices that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left. Bernini sculpted the animal as if it were in the middle of defecating. The animal’s rear is pointed directly at the office of Father Domenico Paglia, a Dominican friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini and his artisan friends, as a final salute and last word.

The death of his constant patron Urban VIII in 1644 released a horde of Bernini’s rivals and marked a change in his career, but Innocent X set him back to work on the extended nave of St Peter’s and commissioned the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona. At the time of Innocent’s death in 1655 Bernini was the aribiter of public taste in Rome. He died in Rome in 1680, and was buried in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Two years after his death, Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in Rome, commissioned Filippo Baldinucci to write his biography, (translated in 1996 as “the life of Bernini”, a work which is still well worth reading.

Bernini’s works are featured in Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons as markers and Altars of Science.


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